Purdue Gives SMS the St. Louis Blues
(The following is a fictionalized account of an imaginary game. It probably never happened. It is written to mitigate and soothe the author’s frustration with watching basketball.)
Like an instant Monday-morning point guard, the author, while watching the game, continually second-guesses the officials, especially after close plays and particularly if the official makes the “wrong” call, and can usually spot bias (bias usually existing only in the author’s imagination) against the author's favorite teams.
The author would have you, the reader, compare basketball to the author’s usual game, bowling, where there are no referees, unless you count the blotto guy who starts yelling after his fifth beer.
In bowling, the score doesn’t depend on interpretation by a third party. The pin is either a): knocked down, and you get one point or more, depending on how many pins you knocked down the previous two frames; or b): remains standing, in which case you get no points.
There‘s no interpretation in bowling.
In basketball, however, the game lives and dies on what the official decides. Every moment of the action, every pass, every touch, every point attempt, is evaluated by the official. He then decides if a foul has been committed. He is judge, jury and free-throw despot.
In no other game is the official more a part of the action, even more than a minor part of the game, than in basketball. In other sports, such as volleyball, or tennis, the official merely has to contend with the net and the foul lines to see if a foul has been committed. In basketball, he must continuously, every second of the game, monitor not only the net and the foul lines, but also the ongoing interactions between all ten players (or even eleven, if one team can get away with fielding six players).
In basketball, the official can call it “close”, causing a defensive team to back off, and an offensive star to tread timidly, lest her usual spectacular scoring play be nullified as a charge; or he can call it “loose”, which can lead to the bigger, faster players having the advantage.
Calling it too loose tends to lead to havoc on the court.
Call it too close, on the other hand, and the game drags, a high-scoring team can’t establish its rhythm, there’s no excitement, discernible momentum shifts or big scores, the fans are bored, and the game deteriorates into a foul-shooting contest.
Mostly, officials try to achieve balance - calling it close on one side means they will compensate by calling it close on the other team. If they "let them play" at one end, they will do the same when the ball is in the opposite court.
Both extremes of calling the game lead to unfairness.
In basketball, as in no other sport, fairness depends on the impartiality of the officials.
And since officials are merely human beings, and basketball isn’t yet (with a few exceptions) being judged by televised instant replay, we have to rely on their good intentions to call the game fairly. Can we always rely on the impartiality of the official?
Hopefully, yes. But in fact, the author suspects there are many games in which predisposed officials play too important a factor in determining the eventual winner. Yes, biased officiating may be more than a figment of the imagination.
There, now I’ve said it!
But now that I’ve said it, let me moderate it: what is often perceived as “bias” by the official, is, in fact, a lack of ability to see everything that’s happening on the court. Every play is different, and the official is not omniscient. Every play falls somewhere on a gradient – is it a foul or a deliberate foul? A charge or a block?
And here is another determining variable thrown into the probable outcome of the game: there is usually more than one official in the game.
What one official sees as a block, the other may interpret as a charge.
Who hasn’t seen a disagreement among officials about which team tipped the ball out-of-bounds? In this scenario, they are lucky to be able to ask the third official, if there is one.
That there is not lot of discussion about this is not surprising. No coach will complain about the officials, not when his team has to play in front of those same officials in several future games. For an NCAA coach to complain out loud about the officiating is an automatic fine.
The viewer, however, can always blame the official for any "wrong" whistles or perceived mad calling method which seems to ultimately lead to his teams demise.
The officials also provide a convenient scapegoat for the fan, and a rationalization for why the team that was supposed to win (MY team), lost. My team didn’t really lose, it was because of the lousy officiating.
Unfortunately, basketball will continue be an inexact science, and there will always be a generous portion of unfairness mixed in the stew of most games.
(Any similarity between the events and people described herein and those in real life is entirely coincidental.)
I was able to get second-hand tickets (which were four times more expensive than the originals) for the Final Four in St. Louis, and Denise and I took the bus to the airport. I was wearing my Lady Bears T-shirt with “Stiles 10” on the back, and talking to the airline ticket counter person about how SMS could really “shoot” the ball when they were on the court, they “shot” 104 points in their last game, and about how “high Jackie” soars on her jumper, but a security guard overheard me, and I spent the next two hours talking to these very not nice people at the airport who were convinced I was involved in some sort of conspiracy to hijack a plane, or planning to go after the magazine rack lady with a gun.
So my friend Denise, from Charles Town, West Virginia (named after George Washington’s brother), had to get on the plane by herself and she went to St. Louis alone. Later on that evening, I called her at the hotel and asked about the game, because by the time they released me from the airport, the game was already over.
Denise gave me a play-by-play description of the game.
Now, I don’t think Denise understands basketball very well, and I know they don’t play it much over there in West Virginia. The whole state is a rolling series of hills, and then towards the middle of the state there’s a steeper series of mountains. I don’t think you could go fifty feet in any direction without running into a hill, a mountain, a mound or a valley. Everything is either on an upslope or a downslope. Now you know it’s hard to play basketball unless the court is level, and since there’s not enough level ground, I guess that’s why they don’t much play it over there.
She finally called about just before midnight. For some reason, she likes to call after eleven o’clock at night. I know there are “morning people” and “afternoon people”, but Denise doesn’t get going until long after sunset.
First she wanted to know why the Purdue team had eight players on the court, and the SMS team only had five.
I said, “Denise, each team is only supposed to have five players on the court.”
“That’s what I thought, but Purdue had their five players, and SMS had their five players, but there were three other players, they were wearing black-and-white uniforms, and I finally figured out they were on Purdue’s team.”
“Denise, those were the officials.”
“And not only that, but I thought this was women’s basketball. Two of these people in the black-and-white striped uniforms were men, and only one was a woman. I didn’t know they were playing a co-ed game.”
“Denise, those were the officials.”
“Oh, you mean like the referees?”
“Well, I don’t think so. There were plenty of people sitting at these long tables on the side who were keeping score, and all that. They must have been doing the officiating. And the two coaches were yelling, too, like they were really the referees.”
I could see this wasn’t going to be one of history’s more enlightening conversations.
“Well, anyway, why did you think the referees were on Purdue’s side?”
“Well, when the game started, right off, Melody Campbell got the ball and she dribbled down the court and tried for a lay-up, but then one of the Purdue players got in her way, and they collided. Anyway, it looked to me like the Purdue player just moved there at the last second, so Melody couldn’t help but bump into her. It seemed to me that the Purdue player wasn’t there in time to get such a bump that she had to fall down. She wasn’t bumped that hard, and she fell funny, like in a different direction than she came from. Seemed to me she flopped down on the floor on purpose.
“So then all of a sudden that Purdue player with the Zebra uniform pulled out a whistle, and he blew real hard on it. And then after he blew on it, everybody else stopped playing except for that striped Purdue player. They all just stopped, and stood around and looked at Purdue’s zebra player, like they didn’t know what to do next.
“He ran up into the middle of everybody like he was upset about something and he pointed at Melody and then he yelled over at the people on the sidelines who were keeping score, and then made some kind of hand gestures at them. It looked like he was giving ‘em a one-finger salute, but it was the wrong finger. Anyway, they wrote something down in their scoresheets, and the announcer said that Melody had a foul already, the game was only in the first few seconds, and just because that player had purposely flopped down, Melody had a foul already.
“Then that Zebra guy took the ball away from Melody and gave it to a Purdue player. Didn’t seem very fair to me.
“So then Purdue dribbled the ball upcourt and put it in their basket.
“Then when SMS got the ball back, they missed, and it was Purdue’s turn again.
“Now the big Purdue players, they were all taller than the SMS players, when this one big girl did the same thing, Carly Deer got in her way at the last second just like the Purdue girl had on the first play with Melody. She went down, but this time it didn’t look it was on purpose, she was already there and standing still, but the Purdue player bumped into her on purpose and they both fell down, and then that guy, that you called the referee, but I think he was really a Purdue player, he ran up again and blew that whistle, real loud, and the same thing happened.
“Everybody stopped, and looked at the Zebra man, and he ran up into the middle of ‘em. Now if he was really the referee, they would have called a foul on the Purdue player, cause she bumped into Carly, just like Melody did at the other end, but this time it was much more obvious that it was the PU player’s fault, because Carly was already standing in position when she was bumped, so it had to be the Purdue player’s fault they both fell down.
“So what happened? Surprise! After he blew that whistle of his, and he ran up into the middle of all the other players, instead of pointing at the Purdue player, he pointed at Carly and again he made those hand gestures to the people on the sideline, and yelled over at them, and this time the Zebra gave the ball to Purdue again, even though it looked to me like it was Purdue’s fault. Then it turned out that Carly had a foul now.
“You know, it seemed like no one beforehand knew what that Zebra player was planning on doing. And no one else knew what to do, they were all standing around looking at him, waiting for him to do something. Then when he pointed at the SMS player, all the Purdue players seemed real happy, and so did the SMS players too, but the SMS players had a funny kind of a grin, kind of sarcastic, kind of slides up one side of your mouth and down the other, like my kid smiled when I asked him if he wanted me to accompany him to the junior-high dance.
“Well, anyway, then did the Purdue Zebra player just give the Purdue girl the ball and they start passing it around again? No, the Purdue girl walked over to this horizontal black line painted on the floor, and she stood right there on that line, looking at the basket real hard, like she thinking real hard, and then she dribbled the ball real slow a couple of times.
“And nobody tried to take it away from her. They all just stood around there, behind these two other, perpendicular lines, and watched her.
“Then, after a few seconds, she aimed, real slow, and just threw it up at the basket. Nobody on SMS tried to stop her, either. She just threw it up and it went in.”
“Those were free throws, Denise,” I interrupted. “They get to shoot baskets when someone commits a foul. No one is allowed to go after the ball until she releases it.”
“Yeah, well, they were ‘free’ all right. Nobody tried to stop her.
“And then I looked at the scoreboard, and Purdue had another point.
“Now I thought you told me that a team gets two points when they make a basket, but she only got one. Kind of serves them right, don’t it?”
“Serves them right?”
“Well, yeah, if she’s going to throw it up and SMS isn’t allowed to go after it, she only deserves to get one point.”
“And then, after she got that first bucket, the zebraman gave it back to her and she shot it again! And nobody tried to stop her this time either; the ball went in and now Purdue was ahead four to nothing.
“Well, I could see this game wasn’t going to come out the way it was supposed to. Wasn’t even fair. Purdue had those eight players and SMS only had five.
“And that’s just the way it went for the whole game. Jackie went up for a long shot, she was standing behind that curved line a long ways from the basket –“
"A three pointer,” I interjected.
“Okay, a ‘three-pointer’, and the Spoilermaker player hit her arm, but the official didn’t call a foul.”
“Boilermaker,” I said.
“Then when the Purdue players got the ball, and one of them went up for a shot, the Zebra woman called a foul on SMS when Carly slapped her arm, even though she was just doing the same thing as that Soilermaker did on Jackie’s shot, when they didn’t call a foul.”
“Boilermaker, “ I corrected again.
“Whatever. So after that, I went down to get a coke and went outside…”
“What? You didn’t watch the rest of the game?”
“Why should I? What’s the use of watching when you already know how it’s going to come out? Some ‘contest’. Anyway, there are a lot of other things to do in St. Louis. I walked over to this big arch they have over there by this real wide lake, somebody told me it was a river but I didn’t believe him, it was too wide to be river, and I rode in this itty-bitty train inside it all the way to the top. Really cool. Except I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone that has claustrophobia.”
“I went back to the game and it was in the second half already, but it was the same old story.”
“Denise, the officials were only trying to do a good job. They’re not biased. They try to call it fairly, on both halves of the court.”
“Well if you ask me, they don’t see half of what goes on. I could see them following Jackie around and holding on to her, that one PU player was guarding her so tight I thought she was trying to make love to her, and them not calling fouls when they should have when SMS had the ball, and calling too many when they shouldn’t have - when Purdue had the ball, oh, no wonder SMS lost.
“Seemed to me to really be unfair.
“And after the game I looked at the scoreboard, they had called 29 fouls on SMS and only 17 on Purdue. Now, I ask you, since Purdue was the bigger team and they were pushing and shoving the smaller SMS players around all night, doesn’t it make sense that they should have had more fouls called on them?”
I felt more than heard the question. I was getting confused. “Well, maybe…” seemed like a good reply.
“But no, they didn’t.”
I wanted to watch the highlights on the Fox Sports show. It was a good excuse to hang up.
Anyway, I had the general idea.
“Well, I want to see the highlights, Denise. Guess I’ll see you when you get back, okay?”
“Sure, maybe we can play tennis or something. At least there, you don’t have to rely on a bunch of, as you call them, ‘officials’.
“Basketball. Hmmph. You know, I’ve seen wars that are less unfair. (Denise is a correspondent for the Washington Times).
Was it a good season for SMS and Jackie Stiles?
It was a great season.
For the SMS Lady Bears did what only four other teams in the country could do: make it to the Final Four. Riding a magic carpet through the scathing tournament schedule, winning upset after upset, they rose higher and higher, the cream of the crop among hundreds of college basketball teams, becoming the media's sweethearts and the nation’s sentimental, underdog favorites.
Given an unfavorable placement in the
tourney, they overcame this handicap by not only upsetting heavily favored
Rutgers, they easily put away the number one seed, Duke, then whipped still
another team of hometown favorites – the Washington Huskies.
In St. Louis, SMS seemed a little shell-shocked after a week of unending glare in America’s public spotlight. Besieged by an army of reporters, continually persuaded and coerced for one more interview, one more autograph signing, one more appearance – this and the added stress of being the tournament’s sentimental favorites, was pressure that SMS just wasn’t used to.
Jackie was pulled every which way but loose, and went out of her way to sate some of the media’s bottomless appetite for her by agreeing to make a side trip to Minneapolis to appear at an ESPN-sponsored awards show, losing an important day of rest two days before the game.
"She's flying to Minneapolis when she needs to be getting rest," Coach Cheryl Burnett said. "Probably that was a distraction."
Jackie’s father, basketball coach Pat Stiles, echoed Burnett’s sentiments: "I'm just so disappointed that it ended like it did," he said. "The pressure and travel took so much out of her - and everyone else."
The team that topped the Bears was in top form. Purdue was blessed by the clutch performance by their star player, Katie Jackson, who had one of her best games ever.
The team that finally managed to get the better of the Bears failed to go on to win the championship only when a last-second game-winning jumper by the talented Katie Jackson rimmed out.
It was a fabulous season.
SMS captured the Missouri Valley Conference Championship, a title that has evaded them for several years. This they accomplished in spectacular fashion, coming from behind in the second half in the championship game. They beat arch-rival Drake, who had become used to perennially taking home the crown from Hammons Center in the perennial MVC playoffs.
For Jackie it was a year of spectacular triumphs, one after another.
Not only did she break the all-time NCAA career scoring record, she set records for most points scored in a season and most points scored in a playoff game, breaking teammate Tara Mitchem’s five-day old record.
After three years of not succeeding, Jackie and the Lady Bears finally achieved the victory in the MVC playoffs she so coveted. Jackie herself wanted it so badly, she came out after halftime in the championship game and led the Lady Bears from behind, scoring an incredible twenty-one points in a row to give the Lady Bears an insurmountable lead and the trophy.
This was the year the media finally recognized the superbly talented Number Ten and the talented team from SMS. Stories appeared in the Washington Times. The Washington Post, USA Today, and every other major paper in the country as SMS advanced to the Final Four. ESPN finally carried a complete SMS game, thinking it was favored Duke’s for the asking, but awed by Jackie and the SMS when they claimed the victory dance. “Unbelievable” the ESPN announcer said breathlessly.
I t was truly an incredible season.
There is no reason to feel anything but extremely proud of the achievements of the team and Jackie.
For SMS, next fall may be the start of a “rebuilding year”, but somehow, SMS always seems to come through with a fine team that lives up to the winning traditions established by Coach Cheryl Burnett (who will not settle for less than excellence) and encouraged by the enthusiastic patrons of Hammons Center.
For Jackie we wish the best in her career in the professional leagues. Just think, maybe she could be the first woman ever drafted into the NBA!
The last four years have been an incredible, exciting time, a magic roller coaster of entertainment, and we owe a debt of gratitude to Jackie and the Lady bears for giving us the greatest thrills while watching these young women break records, make victory after victory, make ‘losing’ an unused vocabulary item, win and achieve beyond what anyone might have expected.
What more can you ask of a human being?
"Out of the
night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell
clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place
of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not
how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scrolls,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul."
By William Ernest Henley (1849-1903)
The Lady Bears may have come out on the low side of the score in a couple of contests, but they remain unconquered in the hearts of their followers.